After a string of three consecutive first-round playoff exits in the early- to mid-2000s, you could make the argument that the Memphis Grizzlies, under the tutelage of Lionel Hollins (now in Brooklyn), were rebranded prior to the 2010 season. Pitted in a division with two perennial playoff dynamos — the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks — Hollins’s triad of Mike Conley-Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol wasn’t satisfied playing for third. The Grizzlies ascension from 24th in the league to 13th in points allowed per game that season was the catalyst, and since the rebrand, Memphis has parlayed its brute force, gut-check mantra into an identity that fans can identify with, and that opposing NBA teams are forced to respect.
This season, Memphis has made a few additions, with players like Vince Carter and Jeff Green now dotting the perimeter. While its backbone for years has been defense, it’s the other side of the ball that feels raw and newfangled: Second-year Coach David Joerger cultivated a top 10 offense in 2014-15. Memphis ranks No. 9 in offensive rating, No. 8 in field goal percentage and No. 6 in free throw percentage. The team takes care of the ball – sixth fewest turnovers per game – and is seeing developments across the floor.
A lot of what Memphis is doing is just improving upon its offensive identity a season ago: The Grizzlies, who have finished in the top 10 in points in the paint averaged each of the last five seasons, rank No. 1 this season (47.1 points per game). More than 80 percent of their attempted field goal attempts come from inside the arc (second most in the league); they attempt 11.4 field goals per game from five to nine feet (second most in the league), and net 3.8 field goals per game from 10-14 feet (most in the league). In short: the team treats offensive paint play as its fulcrum, and as a result, shoots the third fewest three-point field goals of any team in the league.
Using elbow sets run through Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph – players that have universally respected face-up and midrange games – players are able to slash to the basket at ease.It helps that both are facilitating at near-career-high levels. With Gasol and Randolph able to bury shots from a foot inside the arc, opposing defenders are tasked with grim assignments and are capable of being relentlessly exploited, regardless of their body type: few in the league can stick with Gasol everywhere he’s a capable scorer (shoots above 42 percent from all distances inside the arc) and even fewer can front Z-Bo. Since Randolph returned from his knee injury, he has posted 12 consecutive double-doubles. There’s a reason why, in an interview with Grantland’s Bill Simmons in July, DeMarcus Cousins posited that “you’ll feel it the next day” in reference to playing against the Randolph-Gasol tandem. It’s worth noting that Cousins is 6-feet–11 and a thick 270 pounds, with the demeanor of someone who has perhaps never admitted that he’s experienced pain or fatigue.
The efficiency of the team’s rotations is seeing discernible improvements in scoring: a season ago, Memphis broke the 100-point mark 27 times; this season — with 33 games remaining – they have already reached the 27-mark, eclipsing it in 58 percent of their games since Jan. 1. The team’s offensive rating is nearly two points higher than it was a season ago and is the second highest it has been in nearly two decades.
If there was a metric that gauged screen-setting, Memphis would definitely lead it: each player has the ability to not only pick their man on screens, but also to stay clear of creating unnecessary fouls when setting or defending a screen (Memphis ranks No. 10 in fewest fouls per game).
It’s not just Gasol and Randolph: this team facilitates at a higher level than any Memphis team in recent memory. The Grizzlies rank No. 10 in assists per game, dolling out 22.3 per game; they haven’t finished a season in the top 10 in more than a decade.
The team has discernibly embraced running the offense primarily through Conley: in his eighth season in the league, Conley controls the ball an average of 7.1 minutes per game, which ranks No. 7 of all players. He’s having one of the most efficient seasons of his career and is creating 12.4 points per game through his assists.
Joerger is also getting points out of his defense: Memphis ranks No. 9 in the league in points off turnovers (17.2 points per game). For how stout the team’s defense has been for years, it hasn’t finished in the top 10 in points off turnovers since 2011-12.
Memphis is cruising: third best record in the league, 9-1 in the team’s last 10 games, 21-7 against the bloodthirsty Western Conference, and are entering a relatively easy portion of its schedule. The team’s recalibrated offense could take the Grizzlies far this postseason if all of its pieces stay healthy.
Josh Planos has been published at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vice, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He’s currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).